Historic Belfast looks to future

WHEN you think of places full of history, the list is almost endless.

London is one of the most fascinating places in the world to wander around and absorb history. Paris is another one. Prague, Moscow, Warsaw and just about any of the major capitals in the US would be high on the list as well.

A city that may not leap to mind immediately is Belfast.

For many years, the Northern Ireland capital was a tourism no go due to the on-going sectarian violence but, with the city becoming a safer place all the time and a commitment from both sides of the violence to end “the troubles”, it is fast becoming a must-visit city on the world map.

Belfast is a city steeped in history – a chequered history in many ways, but a fascinating history no less.

From the docks where the Titanic was built to the murals adorning buildings throughout the city, it is impossible to be in Belfast without learning something.

With peace finally looking like a reality in Northern Ireland, the people of Belfast are welcoming visitors with open arms, and they truly are some of the nicest people in the world.

One of the best ways to see the city and learn its history is to jump aboard the open top bus tour (although, given Belfast is a rainy city, I would recommend opting for the under-cover option).

This tour does lean heavily on terrorism tourism and, depending on whether you get a Catholic or a Protestant guide, your experience could be entirely different.

A republican's description of the famous Bobby Sands mural will be quite different to the description given to you by a monarchist.

On the open top bus tour you will see bullet holes in windows and hear of taxi drivers being shot depending on what direction they were turning.

You will learn about the massive wall on the Falls Road that divided Catholic and Protestant areas to help maintain peace and you will hear of the bloody riots and IRA atrocities, and look at police stations with thick blast walls, a remnant of many failed and successful bombing attempts on the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

But you will also be taken past the grounds of the spectacular Queens University and see the shipyards where Northern Irish designers sketched the masterpiece that would become the Titanic.

The Albert Memorial Clock, which leans on a terrifying angle, the statue of Queen Victoria and a variety of churches and historical buildings are all monuments you will see on your journey, each with a story fascinating and rich in history and interest.

The other thing you will see on your trip around Belfast is the number of cranes and construction sites, a sign that Belfast has come through to the other side of the troubles and is, once again, a vibrant, bustling city that people are investing in.

For a different perspective on the city, head down to the Lagan, the river that runs through the city, and hop on one of the tourist river cruises.

Belfast is steeped in boating history, and not just the Titanic. Many great ships were built there and the two H&W cranes that dominate the Belfast skyline are testimony to the city's shipping past.

The Lagan tour will tell you all you ever wanted to know about the Titanic and how it was made and you even have the chance to see the Titanic's tender ship, SS Nomadic, which is being lovingly restored by a team of dedicated volunteers.

The Lagan cruise will also give a great view of the modern Belfast, the Belfast that is leaving its troubled history behind and moving forward into a cosmopolitan, exciting, vibrant and energetic city.

After a day of discovering the beauty, the horror, the wonder and the history that Belfast has to offer, there are few better ways to reflect than with good wine and good food.

In Belfast there are dining options a-plenty and the top of that list is the city's first Michelin starred restaurant, Paul Rankin's Cayenne.

Belfast's answer to a celebrity chef, Paul Rankin is a master of creating mouth-watering menus and his kitchen staff are the leaders at turning those menus into remarkable dishes.

The restaurant is almost inconspicuous from the streetfont, but the doors open to a magnificently decorated restaurant where the fragrances from the kitchen are literally overwhelming.

The dining experience just gets better and better from there.

Rankin's comprehensive menu, lovingly recreated by head chef Paul Waterworth, is a highlight of the Belfast experience and a must-do when visiting the city.

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